EXCL Lib Dem ruling board members savage radical Vince Cable reform plans
Liberal Democrats on the ruling party board have laid into radical proposals to shake-up the membership system and pick a new leader when Vince Cable stands down.
Senior figures raised fears that allowing non-paying supporters to vote in leadership elections could lead to a disenfranchised membership and a nosedive in paid subscribers and party funds.
Others said proposals to allow a non-MP to stand for the leadership could become “a stick to beat us with,” while party bosses were accused of having “bounced” the board into its plans.
Sir Vince last week laid out a bid to revive Lib Dem fortunes by launching a ‘supporters scheme’ - allowing new recruits to take part leadership contests without paying any membership fees.
His vision - based on the Canadian Liberals model that saw current PM Justin Trudeau thrust to power - also includes encouraging unelected celebrity figures to stand for the top job.
The party launched a consultation on the plan - dubbed ‘project Ozark’ by insiders - but Federal Board members speaking exclusively to PoliticsHome savaged the idea of handing powers to non-members.
One raised concerns that a large chunk of the 100,000 strong membership would cancel their subscriptions and become non-paying supporters - leaving the party with a financial black hole.
“If you have signed up to be a member and all you want to do is vote for the leader you don’t have to give us any money for that - you just need to give us your email address,” they said.
“We haven’t even been geared up to engage our existing members properly over the past two years - so why we think we would be able to do it for supporters who haven’t handed over any money I don’t know.”
Another senior figure said: “What is the point of being a member if supporters are given lots of rights to do things? The risk is that very long-standing activists and members feel disenfranchised and possibly drop out or not do as much.”
They added: “Lots of people think they have been bounced into all this - which just wasn’t necessary. If the board was to dig its heels in it could stop the whole thing in its tracks."
Another board member fumed: “In a party of just under 100,000 members it wouldn’t take a massive number to start to skew results.”
And they said: “This is just a distraction from the big policy issues we need to be focusing on which will bring us more support...
“It’s an opportunity cost. Any energy and time and resources we divert away from coming elections reduces the number of seats we will win.”
They added: “Quite a lot of people on the board are not happy.”
Elsewhere, the board members described the proposal to allow a celebrity figure to stand for the top job as “stupid” and “loopy” - arguing voters would end up confused about who is in charge.
“What if you accidentally won the election, who would end up being Prime Minister?” one said. “I just think it will become another stick to beat us with.”
But a senior party source defended the plans, arguing: “In a democratic party the leader makes a proposal and then hands it over to the party for an open debate and it’s the party who ultimately decide.”
On concerns about members becoming disenfranchised, the source said paid recruits would have more powers than non-payers, including electing internal office holders and having a say on policy.
Responding to entryism fears, the source said: “Who exactly would it make sense to to try and be entryists to the centrist party? If people are ultra-centrists we would be quite keen to have them.
“People will have to sign up to a core set of liberal principles as set out in our preamble to the constitution and if they start behaving in a way that’s inconsistent with that we will just throw them out.”
On concerns about a non-MP standing for leader, the source argued: “If they have signed up to our values, gone through a rigorous assessment process and have a lot of members lined up in support of them I don't see why the rules should prevent them from running.”
MPs PoliticsHome spoke to at the Lib Dem conference yesterday were enthusiastic about the proposals, although prominent parliamentarian Layla Moran told Business Insider she had “serious concerns” about the moves.
Sir Vince announced the strategy in a speech to the conference on Sunday as he laid out plans to step down once brexit is “resolved or stopped” - possibly as early as next year.
At a meeting of the Lib Dem board at the conference the majority were said to be supportive of a consultation on the plans, while there was strong backing for a basic supporters scheme.